TREMONT — Boatbuilder Carlton Johnson was screwing a plank underneath a trolley car when he spotted a pair of shoes. They belonged to a person he’d never met, who had heard from a friend that it was okay to come down to Johnson’s RedFern boatyard on Tremont Road.
The person had come to take a look at the train Johnson was building. With any previous project, that would have been unusual. But with so many people interested in the trolley, he almost had to schedule visiting hours.
The trolley was a three-year project that involved a community effort, led by Johnson. It culminated with a “launch party” in December.
The team experimented with cutting-edge technology to travel back in time and recreate a vintage train car.
The owners of the train, who prefer to remain anonymous, pitched the project to Johnson four years ago over a glass of wine. They had been to the Seashore Trolley Museum at Kennebunkport and had fallen in love with a particular trolley from 1898 called “The City of Manchester.” They wanted to recreate the trolley to navigate through their property in southern Florida.
According to the museum’s records, The City of Manchester was a parlor car operated by the Manchester Street Railway. Its small body rode atop a rare, ornate truck made by the Peckham Company of Kingston, N.Y. Its interior was elegantly designed to suit private passage by high officials, with a thick rug, curtains and wicker furniture that could easily be moved to the open platform, weather permitting.
Originally, the plan was to outsource building the trolley, and Johnson would only manage the process; “just pay the bills, hire the people and oversee it,” he said. But outsourcing became too expensive, and the work didn’t measure up to Johnson’s standards or vision. That’s when the owners proposed that RedFern build it.
Johnson was hesitant at first and asked to think about it. He had grown up around boats, between Bartlett Island, which his family owned, and Seal Cove. After becoming a deep-sea diver at the Coastal School of Deep-Sea Diving in California, he came back to Maine and worked at the Hinckley company for 13 years, six months and four days before starting his own boat business. Johnson had built hundreds of boats but never a train.
“The owner’s a very smart guy, he knew exactly how to push my buttons,” said Johnson. “He said, in reality, [the trolley] is a boat.”
“After that,” Johnson said, “I couldn’t not finish it. I knew I was going to need a ton of help, and so I went to the people that I’d worked with before.”
Witnessing the team’s commitment was one of his favorite parts.
“It was really quite an effort,” he said. “I would have people texting me at two o’clock in the night going like, ‘It came to me, I know how we’re going to do that!’”
Especially in the final weeks of the project, some of the crew would work on the trolley even on Sundays, when they’d usually be at church, to meet the Dec. 12 deadline.
Locally, about 45 people were involved in building the train car, including painters, welders, carpenters, electricians, engineers and day laborers. Some were drawn to the unusual nature of the project. Others came on board once the trolley had made the journey from an imaginary sketch on a cocktail napkin to a tangible product.
The process started with finding a train car of the right vintage, Danish-built in 1896 in Texas. Johnson’s team took it apart and rewound every nut and bolt in the motors. The team then built the frames from carbon fiber beams and the sides from polyester composite panels. These were materials they were familiar with from boatbuilding.
Once the outer structure was pieced together, the trolley was ready for painting. Kathy Walsh, a member of the RedFern team, added a layer of patina, a varnishing technique that gave the train an aged look.
The team wanted to keep the 1890s feel with the furniture as well, which was made of mahogany. Gardner Pickering from Hewes and Company in Blue Hill used a CNC router, a computer-controlled cutting machine, to carve out identical arched windows.
Some parts of the train couldn’t be found or made locally. Johnson would search online for antique pieces and either buy them on eBay or study them so he could replicate them. The lights, for example, came from Hungary. The ornate inlays on the top, all hand-cut, were made in London by a company that does cathedral ceilings.
It was a challenge to obtain permits that would allow the train to run on the owners’ property. Staying within the $1 million budget that was allocated for the project was no mean feat, either.
But the biggest challenge, according to Johnson, was finding an alternative power source that would allow the trolley to be a “green machine.” Using the owners’ connections to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, engineers built a new form of lithium battery that produces 258 volts, which can push the trolley up the hills and around the corners of the palm tree-lined property.
“That was an interesting part of the project,” said Johnson, “just developing a lithium source and controlling it in a way that would make these big, huge electric motors turn.”
After three years of on-and-off work on the trolley, it was finally time to transport it to the property in Florida. Johnson drove through a December snowstorm from the boatyard in Bernard to Rochester, N.Y., where the trolley was put on top of a truck. A month later, he flew down to Florida to roll it out for a test. Some alterations later, the train was fully operational, just as everyone had envisioned it. “The Peacock Lounge,” as the owners named it, now stops right at the ocean, not quite like a boat.
Johnson turned 60 working on this project. He said he’s learned a lot from the process, which challenged him to step outside his comfort zone.
“When you get to a certain age, your brain is full, and every time you learn something, you’ve got to push something out.” Johnson was worried that learning something new would push out his mother’s minced meat recipe, for one. But the trolley project, he said, has “really brought a whole new sense of ‘I can do it.’”
His next challenge: to teach his 8-year-old granddaughter how to snorkel.